This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20139).


Travelogue showing scenes from Victoria Falls.

An African woman stands beside a sign which reads 'David Livingstone cut his initials on this tree in 1855'. On the shores of the Zambesi river, two Africans remove a large branch, before the film shows a European standing on the rocks splashing his feet in the water. By the river¿s edge, there are a number of canoes, which locals row. Some Europeans board and are shown travelling along the river. There follows a succession of shots of the Victoria Falls - from different angles and positions - including a shot of the Victoria Bridge and the swirling water in the gorge.



In July 1906 The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal reported that ‘an expedition will start at the end of July, which has as its object the securing of a comprehensive series of living pictures of the African continent from the Cape to Cairo’. The report stated that the films would be taken by the Charles Urban Trading Company and would be shown all over the world ‘with a view to bringing the resources of the country before the notice of inventors, emigrants and pleasure seekers’ (The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, July 1906, 175). In December 1906, Cinematography and BioscopeMagazine published a full page advertisement from the Warwick Trading Company explaining that ‘throughout the present year we have had Operators in Africa, making a thorough survey of the country and taking everything of interest, including its scenery, its commercial enterprises, its big game and its native occupations’. A concurrent report explained that four ‘operators’ were working in Africa as part of this Cape to Cairo series. ‘One is travelling down the Nile, beyond Fashoda’, the magazine stated, ‘a second is following the Cape to Cairo railway from Cape Town to the Victoria Falls; a third one follows the course of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to the Victoria Nyanza and across it, whilst the fourth commences operations at the Gold Coast, and traverses the regions of the Niger and the Congo’ (Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, December 1906, 94, 108).

The Great Victoria Falls is widely credited to Emile Lauste, renowned cameraman and son of film pioneer Eugene, but in November 1906 reports had indicated that he was ‘at present in British East Africa’. He had, the report explained, already sent back film of Mombasa City and was set to visit Uganda and Lake Victoria as he outlined his intention to secure thirty thousand feet of film before returning (Optical Lantern, November 1906). On his return in March 1907 he was described as the filmmaker ‘responsible for the East Coast of Africa and Uganda … in conjunction with the Cape to Cairo Railway series’ (Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, March 1907, 153). Among the other filmmakers on the expedition was the Austrian Joseph de Frene, who was filming ‘Portuguese East Africa, Nyasaland, The Congo, British and German East Africa, Uganda’. A report in December 1906 also noted the involvement of Brian Bellassis and Lionel Cook in the expedition, which it stated had now arrived in Cape Town with ‘privileges from the Colonial offices’ (Optical Lantern, December 1906, 52).

By March 1907, there were accounts of screenings by the British South Africa Company of these films – the Victoria Falls ‘of fairyland-like beauty, captivated everyone’ – and films from the series were said to play to ‘distinguished audiences’ and be ‘the topic of conversation in every town where it is shown’ (Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, March 1907, 134, 141 and Convents, Framework, 1988, 108). Advertisements for the series outlined the positive reviews from the British press and described the expedition as ‘realising Rhodes’ dream’. Further taglines read ‘Pushing an iron track through darkest Africa’ and ‘a revelation of what 500 coolies can do under the white man’s supervision’ (Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, March 1907, 133).

In July 1907, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly published a lengthy full-page review of The Great Victoria Falls, Zambesi River. The article threw lavish praise on the film and, when describing a scene of the Eastern Falls, stated that ‘it is without exception the finest kinematograph picture we have ever seen’. It praised the work of the ‘expert kinematographer’ – the viewer feels as if they are ‘standing at the water’s edge rather than merely looking at a pictorial reproduction’ – and presented the film as an ‘admirable example of the unique powers of the kinematograph, in the recreation of pleasurable sensations’. The review further emphasised the power of film as a medium – ‘words fail to convey an adequate idea of the grandeur of the scenes depicted; indeed we doubt whether the powers of a Ruskin, or a Thomas Hardy, would be equal to the task involved’ – and anticipated that ‘the Charles Urban Company’s latest triumph in kinematograph art… will create a sensation and receive the enthusiastic reception it deserves’ (Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 4 July 1907, 126).

The film was certainly widely exhibited and proved a popular success. The following week, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly noted the ‘good reports’ it had heard from ‘all sides, in support of our own opinion printed last week’, adding that the demand for the film was ‘so great’ that the Urban Co. had been ‘compelled to postpone’ the release of other ‘capital subjects’ (KALW, 11 July 1907, 141). After initially playing at the Alhambra, The Great Victoria Falls enjoyed screenings throughout the country. Amongst those listed between August and October 1907 were screenings at the Woolwich Hippodrome; the Shaftesbury Hall, Bournemouth; the Coliseum in Yorkshire; St. James Hall, Harrogate; the Town Hall, Burton and at Picton Hall in Liverpool, where the programme was ‘attracting large and enthusiastic audiences’. The magazine also noted at the end of August that the Charles Urban Co. was now offering a ‘revised edition’ of the film ‘in which several fresh views are incorporated’ while, when reviewing the successes of the company in September 1907, it suggested that ‘in the travel section they have perhaps done best with “The Victoria Falls of the Zambesi”’ (KALW, 29 August 1907, 255, 19 September 1907, 313).

At this time, film of the Victoria Falls – which was almost certainly the Urban picture – also played overseas. For example, in New Zealand the film played at the Theatre Royal in December 1907 and at His Majesty’s in Wellington in April 1908. The local press noted here the ‘recently constructed railway bridge above the falls in the heart of Africa, with a train traversing it’ (Evening Post, 16 April 1908, 2). In America in October 1907, the Des Moines Daily News commented on a local screening of a picture showing the ‘Victoria Falls in Central Africa’, and acknowledged that ‘thanks to the invention of the moving picture machine, sights and scenes in foreign lands can be seen in all their beauty and splendour by anyone, without travelling to far away countries to see them’ (Des Moines Daily News, 17 October 1907, 7). The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette in November 1907 also noted the inclusion of a film that shows ‘views of the Great Victoria Falls by dawn, daylight and moonlight’ and includes scenes of ‘the whirlpool and the Victoria bridge (the highest in the world)’ (Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 16 November 1907, 11). The ‘Victoria Falls Film’ also ‘scored a triumph’ at the Rosy May theatre in Montana in June 1908 (Anaconda Standard, 18 June 1908). Film historian Thelma Gutsche listed the film as ‘one of the outstanding films of 1907’ and noted that it was shown throughout Southern Africa by the leading itinerant exhibitor W. Wolfram in September 1907 (Gutsche, 1972, 77, 308).

Gutsche concluded that ‘there is no doubt that Urban’s enterprise secured the first comprehensive documentation of South Africa in films’, but there is evidence of earlier pictures of Victoria Falls. The Livingstone Mail claimed in June 1906 that a cinematograph produced earlier in the year had reached an audience of six million within six months of filming. JoAnn McGregor recognised this as a further indication that Victoria Falls was reaching an ‘increasingly global public’, with postcards also mass produced (McGregor, 2003, 727).

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Victoria Falls developed as a tourist resort, with film serving both to bring this attraction to an international audience and to promote a colonial rhetoric of British development and conquest. JoAnn McGregor argued that the Victoria Falls resort now ‘celebrated modernity, the achievements of colonial science and command over nature, epitomised by the railway, the bridge over the Zambesi [which opened to great acclaim in 1905], and the new conventions of seeing introduced by camera and film’ (McGregor, 2003, 727). In developing a tourist industry, the area had to be safe and controlled ‘even if it was marketed as remote and wild’ and must also now cater for women as well as men. As part of this development the Victoria Falls Hotel was completed in 1904, which ‘cast the falls as a modern, luxurious resort, deploying symbols of a global tourist industry and of empire’ (McGregor, 2003, 725, 727). 



The Great Victoria Falls brings spectacular sights from the Empire back to a British audience. Ostensibly it follows prominent tendencies within early cinema, in allowing viewers to see – and as the reviews emphasised, almost feel and experience – foreign sights from home. Yet the film is also symptomatic of a changing attitude towards, and relationship with, Africa. JoAnn McGregor illustrated how in the first decade of the twentieth century the Falls were ‘tamed’ by British science through the development of the railroad, the bridge, the hotel and the tourist industry that followed. Film serves as a further indication of the ways in which Africa was ‘controlled’ and ‘captured’ through British scientific advances. There is therefore a familiar colonial rhetoric of conquest and British ‘development’, which is strengthened by the process of filming, in the film itself, and even through the publicity surrounding it, which emphasised the technological progress through ‘darkest Africa’ achieved by Africans ‘under the white man’s supervision’.

The film displays the recently opened Victoria Bridge – regularly referred to in the reviews as the highest in the world – and also shows the development of a tourist industry within the area. For example, guests from the Victoria Falls Hotel board canoes and are taken along the Zambesi – which was described by The Evening News after a regatta in 1905 as ‘Our New Henley’ (McGregor, 2003, 725, 727). From the outset the Falls are presented within an imperial context. The initial sign stating ‘David Livingstone cut his initials on this tree in 1855’ immediately encourages the viewer to see the subsequent footage within this broader context of colonial advancement. The film, however, not only endorses the primacy of the British Empire, but also serves as an early example of a changing attitude towards Africa, promoting Africa as a tourist destination and as a land of adventure for potential emigrants.

Tom Rice (October 2008) 


Works Cited

Anaconda Standard, 18 June 1908.

Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 16 November 1907, 11.

Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, December 1906, 94, 108.

Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, March 1907, 133, 141, 153.

Convents, Guido, ‘Documentary and Propaganda before 1914’, Framework, 35, 1988.

Des Moines Daily News, 17 October 1907, 7.

Evening Post, 23 December 1907, 2.

Evening Post, 16 April 1908, 2.

Gutsche, Thelma, The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa, 1895-1940 (Howard Timmins, 1972).

Hawera and Normanby Star, 27 October 1908, 5.

‘The Great Victoria Falls, Zambesi River’, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 4 July 1907, 126.

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 11 July 1907, 141.

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 22 August 1907, 223, 227.

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 29 August 1907, 250, 255.

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 5 September 1907, 261

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 19 September 1907, 313, 323.

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 3 October 1907, 359.

McGregor, JoAnn, ‘The Victoria Falls 1900-1940: Landscape, Tourism and the Geographical Imagination’, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 2003), 717-737.

‘Booming Africa’, The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, July 1906, 175.

‘Colonial Films’, Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, November 1906.

‘Cape to Cairo Expedition’, Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, December 1906, 52. 



Series Title:

Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
445 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Charles Urban Trading Company